Building the Digital Utility of the Future

Man with cloud graphic

By Ahmad Habibian

The digital utility of the future will be built upon five revolutionary technology trends: 1) Emergence of Internet of Things (IOTs); 2) Mobile Information Communication Technology; 3) Cloud Storage Services; 4) Data Analytics; and 5) Social Platforms. The digital utility will be able to leverage this big data to improve operational efficiencies, save costs and enhance customer service.

Figure 1 — The Five Pillars of the Digital Utility

“Big Data” is an industry term used to refer to the data being collected and/or generated by a digital utility. Big Data is defined by four attributes (or the 4Vs) as shown below in Figure 2. Volume refers to the enormous amount of data being collected by digital utilities and is projected to be many orders of magnitude compared to the amount of data being collected today by traditional water utilities. Velocity refers to the need for timely and fast transmission of data across the digital utility’s various platforms. Variety refers to the various types of data being collected or generated. Most of the data collected today is of numerical nature; however, data can have various forms such as pictures, videos, graphics, and text. Finally, veracity refers to the need for being able to ascertain the quality of confidence level of data. Not all collected data has the same level of confidence. For example, asset inventory data derived from as-built drawings has typically a very high level of confidence in terms of accuracy; however, asset inventory data derived from anecdotal sources has a low level of confidence.

The IOTs include intelligent devices that can execute programmed applications and allow remote operation of various mechanical, electrical or communication systems. The IOTs also include low-cost sensors to measure and monitor performance and operational parameters, allowing utilities to have access to real-time data. The data can be easily transmitted through various available communication channels such as mobile and radio technology.

Figure 2 — Attributes of Big Data

Organizing, storing and accessing such volume of data will be a challenge for many utilities and would require significant data warehousing capabilities and IT infrastructure. Cloud technology will play a key role in providing a platform for handling big data.

Addressing cybersecurity concerns is a major consideration for digital utilities. There must be a balance between the desire to provide the customers and the public with useful information on the one hand and the need to protect the critical infrastructure information. Additionally, hardening the information system infrastructure against malicious attacks is of paramount importance. As a first step, utilities must perform a vulnerability and threat analysis of their critical infrastructure. A risk analysis is performed by incorporating the level of threat and the identified vulnerability of each asset. The risk profile is utilized as a prioritization tool for taking action and developing and implementing appropriate strategies to address the identified vulnerabilities and threats. The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has developed a five-step systematic approach for addressing cybersecurity threats. The steps recommended by NIST are:

  1. Identify: What assets need to be protected?
  2. Protect: What safeguards are in place or need to be in place to protect the asset?
  3. Detect: What techniques can identify incidents?
  4. Respond: What actions can contain the impact of incident?
  5. Recover: What techniques can restore the capabilities of the impacted asset?

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has also developed a framework for threat and vulnerability analysis which closely follows the approach recommended by NIST.

While big data forms the foundation of a digital utility, data by itself is of very limited value. It is the in-depth analysis of the data through data analytics that extracts knowledge and actionable intelligence that utility managers and operators can use to optimize and improve performance, troubleshoot operations, reduce costs, enhance revenue, and improve customer service. Additional benefits can be realized through predictive analytics.

Figure 3 — Data Analytics Capabilities

Finally, the digital utility of the future will be able to communicate with customers through available and emerging social media platforms. For example, many progressive utilities now maintain a presence on Facebook and utilize twitter to connect with customers. The capability is there for customer to have access to the up-to-the-minute consumption data, water quality data, and operation and maintenance alerts.

The range of applications of Big Data to improve operational efficiencies, save cost, and enhance customer service are only limited by our imagination. Some examples of these applications are provided below.

Examples of Big Data Applications

» Enhance customer service and exprience by connecting and engaging with customers

» Ensure regulatory compliance by monitoing and intervention

» Enhance system resiliency, improve damage assessment and reduce recovery time

» Provide Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) to enhance revenue

» Provide AMI capabilities to monitor system for leaks, condition, and water quality

» Optimize pumping operations to save power costs

» Provide capability to remotely monitor equipment performances and take corrective action

» Manage collection system to maximize inline storage and minimize overflows

Moving toward the Future

The road map for building the digital utility of future starts with developing vision, performing a gap analysis to identify the improvements required to move from the current state to the desired state, developing an action plan to move towards the desired state, implementing the plan and monitoring progress and making adjustments as program progresses.

Final Thoughts

Figure 4 — The Road Map to the Future Digital Utility

Many progressive utilities have begun to take steps to move towards a truly digital utility. The most progress has been in the areas of customer communication, AMR/AMI deployments, and GIS-centric solutions. Performance monitoring and effective use of data analytics are still in their infancies.

While lack of a bold vision, cybersecurity concerns, capital cost required and the rapid evolution and obsolescence of technologies involved are some the impediments to becoming a digital utility, there is no doubt that many utilities are recognizing the inherent value and numerous benefits of digital utilities.

The customers of the future digital utility will be able to stay informed and engaged, and have access to billing information and consumption, water quality and other data. Utility managers will have the up-to-the-minute information at their fingertips to manage the assets and processes, and optimize the allocation of resources. Utility operators with “smart apps” on their mobile devices can monitor, optimize and troubleshoot assets and processes that are vital to the delivery of safe and adequate supply of potable water and efficient collection and treatment wastewater.

It is only evitable that more and more utilities will be embracing the digital utility concept and will be taking steps to become one.

Ahmad Habibian, Ph.D., P.E., is the global technical strategy leader for conveyance at CDM Smith. He has more than 30 years of infrastructure management, pipeline assessment and rehabilitation and trenchless technology experience. He has served in several leadership positions with ASCE and AWWA, and has been recognized for his services through the 2015 AWWA DPOD Peak Performance Award and the 2008 ASCE Pipeline Division Award of Excellence. He has published and presented more than 100 papers at ASCE, AWWA, WEF, NASTT and other professional organizations, publications and conferences.

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